Experimental philosophy is an important 21st-century development in which philosophers abandon their traditional armchairs and systematically collect data about how people think. I see 2 main strengths and 3 surmountable limitations in its current practice.
There are two major ways in which experimental philosophy makes valuable contributions. First, it provides an effective antidote to assumptions of analytic philosophy and phenomenology that thought experiments and introspection provide insights into how things are and how they ought to be. Instead of relying on the solitary intuitions of a philosopher about stories that the philosopher made up, experimental philosophy consults the reactions of numerous people in populations more culturally diverse than are usually found in philosophy departments. Diversity in philosophical intuitions has been found for ethnicity, gender, personality, philosophical background, and age. Experimental philosophy thus serves to undermine the dogmas of analytic philosophy that I identified in an earlier post.
Second, experimental philosophers valuably extend the range of data relevant to assessing philosophical theories. Psychologists do many experiments, but their concerns are not always philosophical, and philosophy should not wait for psychologists to amass evidence relevant to epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. So experimental philosophy is a valuable source of additional information for the development of theories in natural philosophy.
However, as currently practiced, experimental philosophy has several limitations that undercut its relevance. First, almost all published results in experimental philosophy are surveys in which people, ranging from undergraduates to paid contributors on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, are asked to give their reactions to various scenarios. Psychologists have long been trained to look critically at the results of such surveys because of biases, such as the tendency of people to tell the experimenter what the experimenter wants to hear. Psychologists use a variety of techniques such as deception and reaction time measures that detect aspects of thought not reachable by survey questions alone.
Second, with rare exceptions, experimental philosophy has avoided the experimental techniques of cognitive neuroscience, which are increasingly proving relevant to developing deeper theories in cognitive, social, development, and clinical psychology. Experimental psychology has learned that it cannot ignore the brain, and experimental philosophy needs to gain similar insights by means of brain scans and other neuroscientific methods.
Third, the current findings about what people think obtained by experimental philosophy are of limited use in developing and evaluating philosophical theories that are general and normative. Finding out what people think about minds has little relevance for understanding how minds actually work, just as finding out what ordinary people think about forces and life has little relevance for physics and biology. Experimental philosophy sometimes seems to have adopted the dogma of analytic philosophy and phenomenology that ordinary people have basically gotten it right about how the mind works. But decades of research in psychology and neuroscience show that people are astonishingly ignorant of the mental mechanisms that produce thought, so their naïve judgments of little use in figuring out the nature of mind, knowledge, reality, and morals.
All three of these limitations can be overcome by more sophisticated work in experimental philosophy. Philosophers can conduct more illuminating experiments using techniques well understood in psychology and neuroscience. Their experimental results will not have direct implications for finding answers to philosophical problems, but they can help point to better theories of mind that will have such implications. When enhanced experimentally and theoretically, experimental philosophy can play a valuable constructive role in natural philosophy that goes beyond its already useful debunking role in undermining the introspective methods of analytic philosophy and phenomenology.